Two trivial writing mistakes that really grate on me

Like most academics, I read a lot. And I mean a lot: student papers, draft manuscripts and thesis chapters, manuscripts I’m peer reviewing, grant proposals, blog posts, and yes, newspapers and magazine articles and novels. So I see polished writing, and unpolished writing, and rough-draft writing. And I have that academic instinct to spot writing errors. I see lots of those, believe me – including, of course, in my own writing.

Some errors impede communication, and some are trivial. You’d think I’d rant about the former and forgive the latter, but I’m afraid I’m not that rational. I’m here today to rant about two trivial writing mistakes that really grate on me – and that are astonishingly common. That last bit matters (I’ll get to it).

Trivial writing mistake #1: overgeneralizing hyphenation from compound modifiers. English often uses two words working together to modify a noun: three-word phrase*, well-studied phenomenon, birch-tree grove, red-wavelength fluorescence. The two (or more) words that make up the compound modifier are hyphenated, and this makes their meaning clear (a heavy-metal detector is not the same things as a heavy metal detector, to borrow Wikipedia’s example). Many writers seem to overgeneralize from this and decide that the two words need a hyphen whenever they occur together, writing (for example) this phenomenon is well-studied and applied in the design of detectors for heavy-metals. Nope.

Trivial writing mistake #2: making a verb agree in number with the closest noun rather than its subject. For some reason, many people will write The use of organic acids, including acetic, lactic and citric acids, are common in food preservation. Nope. The verb (to be) agrees in number with the subject of the sentence (use, singular), not with the closest noun (acids, plural). So this sentence needs the singular form of to be: is, not are.**

I see each of these mistakes extremely often, and they really grate on me. And yet: they’re trivial, in the sense that they almost never conceal the meaning of what’s written. At worst, they indicate a writer who’s been careless. I suppose I could argue that evidence of carelessness in writing suggests the possibility of more important carelessness in the science. But if I’m honest, I don’t think that’s really it. I think these just grate on my because I know they’re “wrong”, and I’m pedantic and fussy.

Wait – why did I put “wrong” in scare quotes, in that last paragraph? Ah, that’s the interesting part, I think. These two mistakes are extremely common, and possibly becoming more so.*** So it might be possible to argue that they aren’t, in fact, mistakes, but rather variant usages on their way to being grammatically correct. I know, that might rankle you as much as it rankles me; but English doesn’t have a body in charge of enforcing distinctions between correct and incorrect constructions. Instead, our language is a set of conventions that are agreed upon between most writers and most readers – and those conventions change over time. (Decimate, for example, doesn’t mean kill every tenth one any more no matter how much a few stuffy pedants might argue that it does.) Maybe in another 30 years, detectors for heavy-metals won’t raise a single eyebrow, but someone will write a blog post complaining about people who write detectors for heavy metals.

So am I going to let writers of detectors for heavy-metals off the hook? No, not yet. One day that construction might be correct (<shudders>), but it isn’t now. Or more precisely: it’s common, but not yet (I think) accepted by the majority of readers as correct. So while it may communicate its subject clearly enough, I think it also communicates carelessness in writing. And oh, does it ever grate on me.

© Stephen Heard  October 18, 2022

Image: Mitsakes were made. © opensourceway CC BY-SA 2.0 via flickr.com


*^Contented sigh at counting the words in three-word phrase – I love me a self-referential example. Ooh, self-referential example!

**^After writing this post, I discovered I’ve ranted about this particular error before. It’s one of many writing problems that gets introduced as a result of our fondness for long, complex sentences. In The Scientist’s Guide to Writing (Chapter 18), there’s a section headed “Each Complex Sentence Has a Simple Core”. The advice I give there: strip a sentence down to its simplest subject-verb-object core, and make sure it works that way (use is common, not use are common). Really, there’s some useful stuff in that book.

***^I’m not sure I’m right about them becoming more common. It’s entirely possible that they’ve always been with us and I’m just displaying the old-fogey fallacy (ooh, look, old-fogey fallacy) of thinking everything was better long ago.

 

Advertisement

18 thoughts on “Two trivial writing mistakes that really grate on me

      1. Peter Apps

        Even stranger, it doesn’t flag “are” if you delete the s at the end of “acids” – maybe it knows we are testing it.

        Like

        Reply
  1. Pavel Dodonov

    So in the future, a heavy-metal band member using a heavy-metal detector to detect heavy metals in his heavy metal studio may become a heavy-metal band member using a heavy-metal detector to dectect heavy-metals in his heavy-metal studio? Interesting.

    Like

    Reply
  2. Chris Mebane

    Trivial mistake #1 is also often suggested by Word’s grammar checking function. While I think its code is generally correct on this, it seems changing use leads to different conventions with different phrases that by “rule” should be hyphenated. For example, I study the aquatic toxicity of heavy metals (really) and often, heavy metals toxicity is not hyphenated. Likewise, a birch tree forest seems as unambiguous as birchbark. The trend seems to be to simplify common combinations or complications over time. Sometimes. Around me, we have the Clarks Fork River in Wyoming, the Clark Fork River in Montana, and Clark’s nutcracker. Same Clark, different usage. And we have a Henry’s Fork River which originates from Henrys Lake. I think hyphenation may be headed the same way – declining use with common pairs.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  3. Yeah, Another Blogger

    Howdy. In my writings, I capitalize each word of titles. For instance: The Old Man And The Sea. Some grammar experts might agree with this. But most wouldn’t, I suspect. In any case, doing it this way looks right and feels right to me. What’s your opinion on the matter? Take care. Neil S.

    Like

    Reply
    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I think that’s 100% a matter for the style guide of whatever publication you’re appearing in! That is, I don’t think it has anything to do with grammar. It’s a very common style (hence it being called “title case”, but it’s far from universal.

      Liked by 2 people

      Reply
      1. gspivak

        Steve, you are absolutely right that capitalization is a style issue, not a grammar issue.

        Style covers things like punctuation, capitalization, numerical expressions, abbreviations and font. Different styles are correct but an organization will choose which style they want to use. They will use an already published style guide or they will codify their style choices into a style guide for their organization.

        If you ever run across a professional editor who claims one style is correct, keep running. That’s not the approach to style that a good editor should have. I have worked with three different style guides this year (depending on the product) and that is normal for a professional editor.

        There are conventions (not rules) for capitalization. Many style guides would say that the word “and” in the example from Yeah, Another Blogger should be lower case, if the title itself is in title case. So, Old Man and the Sea (not “And” or “The”).

        Like

        Reply
        1. Peter Apps

          Surely, punctuation is grammar rather than style.

          Style covers things like punctuation. Capitalization, numerical expressions, abbreviations and font.

          Like

          Reply
          1. gspivak

            No, punctuation is not a grammar matter. There are many explanation of this online if you google “what is the difference between grammar and punctuation.”

            And punctuation varies much more widely across various Englishes than most people imagine. Englishes include those in Canada, the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand and India.

            (FWIW, I am a former president of the Editors’ Association of Canada and admin several international editing groups online, where we talk about style and grammar every day.)

            Like

            Reply
            1. Peter Apps

              If punctuation is not a grammar matter, how is it that changing a comma in your original version into a full stop (period or whatever the technical term is) as in my rewriting, renders the second part of your sentence ungrammatical?

              Like

              Reply
              1. Greg Ioannou

                Peter, this web page explains the distinction clearly:

                https://www.writingforward.com/better-writing/good-grammar-spelling-and-punctuation?fbclid=IwAR0Agf1eyAirm37kzHwMpvJh1gJ2iuKJVlODZNtvKULS-cHuuvj_uKbxUlg

                “Grammar deals with how we structure the language, and it is applied to both speech and writing. Orthography, on the other hand, addresses the rules of a language’s writing system or script.

                Orthography deals with spelling and punctuation, because these elements are only relevant when the language is written.”

                Like

                Reply
  4. Mike

    I think the real solution to that second one is rephrasing the sentence (as often is the case with confusing grammar). If you write “Organic acids, including acetic, lactic and citric acids, are commonly used in food preservation” then you get rid of the confusing subject altogether. But of course, recognizing that you should rephrase the sentence requires recognizing the syntax is a bit confusing…

    Like

    Reply

Comment on this post:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.